The Northern Hemisphere is about to experience the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. The Earth enters the Perseid meteor stream in late July, when a night-sky observer can expect to see about five meteors an hour. Right now (08/08/08), it’s possible to see about 15 meteors per hour. By August 12, the peak of the shower, there will be more than 60 meteors an hour. If you can get to a reasonably dark location, it will be a spectacular show. NASA says:
“Serious meteor hunters will begin their watch early, on Monday evening, August 11th, around 9PM when Perseus first rises in the northeast. This is the time to look for Perseid Earthgrazers—meteors that approach from the horizon and skim the atmosphere overhead like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond.”
While you’re observing the meteors, why not brush up on your constellations? For years I used an old-school Star Map Wheel, along with the weekly constellation maps in the New York Times to learn constellations, stars, and planets. Now I use Stellarium, which I first discovered and wrote about last year (Matty H. has previously written about Stellarium in Tech Tails).
Stellarium is a free open source planetarium for your computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope. Set your coordinates and go. Actually, you don’t even need to set your coordinates; you can simply mouse over a global map to find your location.
While Stellarium is used in planetarium projectors, it’s also a powerful, fun, fully interactive method for identifying celestial objects. Stellarium shows you exactly what you see when you look up at the stars. It uses your Mac’s internal clock to show a map of the sky in real-time. If you’re looking South, simply move Stellarium’s compass South to identify individual stars, constellations, planets, and moons. It’s amazing that this is a free, open source program. It’s my favorite free Mac application.
I will be awake at 2AM on Tuesday morning, August 12th, after the Moon sets, observing the Perseids. “The shower will surge into the darkness, peppering the sky with dozens and perhaps hundreds of meteors until dawn.” During the shower I will attempt celestial photography; I’ll share these on my MobileMe page if that is successful.